Sample-itis

Dear Helena,

I went into a cheese store and sampled 11 cheeses in hopes of finding something new I liked. I didn’t like any of them, so I didn’t buy anything. My wife was really embarrassed. She said if you ask for that many samples, you ought to make a purchase. I don’t see why, since the reason you sample something is because you don’t know whether you like it or not. Is it OK to eat a lot of samples without buying anything? If it’s not OK, how many samples can you have before it would be rude not to buy? And does it make a difference whether you’re in a cheese store, an ice cream parlor, or at the farmers’ market? —Can’t Decide

Dear Can’t Decide,

Store owners don’t mind how much you sample, provided you’re not just looking for a free lunch. James Coogan, manager of the Ideal Cheese Shop in New York, says: “If you’re actually looking for something, there is no limit to how many cheeses you can sample.” And no matter how much you eat, you don’t have to buy anything, whether you’re in a cheese store, an ice cream parlor, or at a farmer’s stall. As with any other purchasing decision, testing out the merchandise incurs no obligation. Glenn Herrell, owner of Say Cheese in Los Angeles, says: “It’s like the other day, I went into a shoe shop, tried on 10 different pairs of shoes, and didn’t buy anything. I felt bad, but nothing looked right.”

The number of samples you eat doesn’t really matter, but how you sample does. Gus Rancatore, owner of Toscanini’s, an ice cream shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says: “If I’m planning to sample, I wouldn’t go in when they’re incredibly busy and bring the business to a screeching halt.” And you shouldn’t be greedy if the samples are self-serve. June Taylor, a jam maker who offers samples at her stall at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, says: “Some people are very respectful: They just put a taste on the spoon. Others treat it like a shovel.”

So if you’re polite about it, extensive sampling is perfectly acceptable. But will it help you pick the best cheese? Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice, says that if you see something you already know you like, you’re better off buying that and pretending the other options don’t even exist. Too many choices can give you a bad case of buyer’s remorse: “If you’re faced with a choice of a hundred cheeses, even if you sample 10, you’ll be haunted by the 90 you didn’t taste, imagining how delicious they might have turned out to be.”

Another reason to stick to the same old thing is that we often enjoy novelty less than we expect. Schwartz cites an experiment in which two groups of students chose a snack to have in a seminar break for each of the next three weeks. The first group picked all three snacks in advance; the second group picked its snacks just before eating them. The first group opted for variety. The second group tended to choose the same snack every day, and the students were much happier with their choices. “Novelty is much less satisfying than we think it will be,” Schwartz concludes. But although sampling might not lead to the best decision, it makes the act of deciding much more fun. Especially when the person giving you samples doesn’t resent you.

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